The economic situation in the post-World War I period was still difficult for the electricity industry in 1920-1921. The development of energy transmission was seen as a way to reduce local shortages and, in Western Europe, the years 1920 and 1921 were exceptionally dry years so the supply from several hydraulic regions was severely affected. ‘High voltage’ technology was already advancing enough to allow connections over quite long distances, and technology was progressing rapidly: 120 kV was quite developed in Europe, 132 kV and 150 kV were developed in America, and California was planning a switch up to 220 kV.
The strengthened post-war union between the European Allies and the United States fostered a more open field of cooperation on many issues, notably electrification and electrical engineering, was extended.
The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) – established in 1906 and with clearly defined objectives – had a specific role to play but many believed a different organization, more clearly on electrical transmission, was needed but complementary to IEC. This new organization to study electrical transmission was clearly set in the context of a new economic and technological governance.
There were three prime factors leading to the creation of a new organization. The first factor was clearly related to the international cooperation presented above.
The second factor was the shortage of equipment and facilities, or even energy, in the post-war economic situation. Many localized power stations were damaged or destroyed during the war, or inoperable due to a lack of maintenance. The theory was that it would be faster and more efficient to develop regional transmission networks than build new power stations.
However, the third and most important factor was probably the necessity of a resolutely systemic approach to power systems, their technological development and their economy, in the original sense of the term.
The interconnection of previously separate networks was conceivable though there was concern over difficulties that might arise in the simultaneous operation of multiple generators. Controlling and adjusting what was then considered very extensive interconnections was the biggest concern. Not only were basic theories still insufficient to clearly shed light on these complex questions, but very little had been published on the subject during the war.
Thus, in 1921, the wish was to develop an experienced and professional community dealing with networks and systems as a whole. The new organization was to include industrial, entrepreneurial, and economic aspects, as well as the socio-cultural repercussions of the expansion of electricity.
In late 1920, Mr. Bauer, Director of the Société Suisse pour le Transport et la Distribution de l’Electricité in Berne, met in Paris with René Legouez, Chairman of the Union des Syndicats de l’Electricité (USE). Both men believed the pooling of ideas and experience would aid the growth of interconnections.
The IEC had, by this time, succeeded in setting up an international system of electrical units. The IEC had sponsored several previous electricity congresses so it was a natural move for M. Bauer and René Legouez to turn to the IEC President, who, at the time, was Mr. C.O. Mailloux, from the United States.
C.O. Mailloux, and Charles Le Maistre, IEC Secretary General, recommended the formation of a specialised body of a technical, scientific, and applied technology character. Like the IEC, the new body was to be open to electrical engineering teachers and researchers and network operators, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs. Their desire was to have a somewhat ‘private club’ character and it was not to directly question or challenge governments, nor spill over into the official area of regulations.
The contacts established in various countries confirmed these aims and led to the organization of the first conference in Paris in the Autumn of 1921. This meeting was considered as the inaugural conference of a new international electrical engineering organization. Jean Tribot-Laspière, who was then Secretary General of USE, was entrusted with the practical organization of this first conference, and also, more generally, with the study and definition of the conference’s administrative structure. He was assisted by the Delegate General of the Syndicat des Producteurs Distributeurs d’Electricité, Emile Brylinski, for his in-depth knowledge of technical issues.
The birth of CIGRE - Paris International Congress in November 1921
USE of France took charge of organising this first Congress called Conférence Internationale des Grands Réseaux Électriques à Haute Tension - International Conference on Large High Voltage Electric Systems (CIGRE), under the impetus of its President René Legouez and its Secretary General Jean Tribot-Laspière. It is noteworthy that all the illustrious technicians of electric energy from the attending countries were present at the Paris Congress. They represented the “elite” of the world’s electrical engineers, as shown by the historic photograph of the participants posing for posterity.
231 high voltage electrical engineers and technicians, 167 of whom were from France and 64 participants from eleven other countries (Belgium, Denmark, Spain, United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland) met from November 21 – 28, 1921 at 7 Rue de Madrid, where the USE’s headquarters were located at the time. At the opening ceremony, C.O. Mailloux and A. Blondel (France) were appointed Honorary Presidents, while R. Legouez was appointed President and J. Tribot-Laspière Secretary General of the conference. Having been founded under the auspices of the IEC, CIGRE adopted two languages from its creation: English and French.
Two major features of CIGRE were established from the outset:
- It would be organised as biennial Sessions, which were its fundamental raison d’être and its core activities; the Sessions were to always be held in the same city: Paris, the City of Light.
- The vital relations between CIGRE and the IEC were officially defined by the following resolution at the end of this founding Session in November 1921:
“CIGRE: Considering that its work is of a nature that provides very interesting and useful indications to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) for its standardisation work and for facilitating this work, asks the Secretary General of the Conference to forward the result of its works to the IEC”.
Therefore, the major link with the IEC remained one of CIGRE’s natural functions.
With this “club” of pioneers, CIGRE aimed to provide an international setting for the discussion and the study of technical questions concerning the generation, transmission and distribution of electric energy and to disseminate the progress made by experts from all over the world in these fields. Concretely, the Conference enabled renowned specialists to meet in order to address questions and problems in the following areas:
- The manufacture of machines for the generation, transformation and interruption of electric current;
- The design, construction and the maintenance of overhead and underground lines;
- The operation, protection and interconnection of transmission systems.